I had the good fortune to attend the China International Furniture Fair, a huge showcase of innovative design solutions.
The event filled nearly 1 million square feet in the Canton International Export and Trade Center in Gangzhou. People buzzed through the facility exploring new designs for elements as small as caster wheels and as large as full office prototypes.
Throughout the experience, I noticed a few core differences between the typical furniture expos I’ve seen in the United States from what I saw in China.
The economy in China is booming; clearly they are focused on designing for the growth, which seems to be fully supported politically, too. Deals were happening right in front of me on the showroom floor – something I’ve never seen here in the States.
The Chinese want the world to see what they can do. Just the shear size of the show alone — and the ability to attract people from around the world to make deals happen – shows that they aggressively make their economy grow.
Even the language barrier, which is significant, poses an obstacle that they are clearly overcoming. No matter the language, they were able to communicate through their products, displays, marketing materials, and in-person translators. It demonstrated the opportunities that exists in our building relationships with China.
In fact, I walked away realizing the huge potential U.S. manufactures have in looking to China for partnerships. If we’re willing to provide them with our innovation and design, they could match us with impressive manufacturing power and quality.
The biggest barriers to doing so may indeed be language, service, and national support networks — but I suspect that systems for these already exist or, at the very least are not far behind.
The strength and breadth of China’s industrial and manufacturing capabilities were on display. Nothing was left out; beaming professionals showcased fabrics, screws, cushions, bent wood frames, seats, and even the tools they use to make them.
The Chinese have made pretty significant improvements in quality and are improving rapidly. They have achieved a respectable status for the quality of furniture that is being made.
But my sense was that it is geared toward a mass-production mindset. Everyone was selling quantity — the more you bought, the cheaper it was. This notion isn’t novel, of course, and it also seemed to be driven by the presence of large U.S. retail chains who’ve been working with China for some time already.
Which leads me to another point: I did not see artistic craftsman or high-end designers. I also did not see any significant innovation or new research as I often see in the United States or Europe. I saw little in way of new workplace ideas and even fewer of those types of ideas were being integrated into their furniture.
Most of what I saw did not compare with the highest quality of U.S. or European manufacturers. There were only a few products with designs I would consider close to average – and most simply mimicked higher-end designs from U.S. or European companies.
Reach & status
This show attracted the international furniture industry. I was floored to see people from all parts of the world there and doing business. There is a clear strategy on the part of China trade to do what is necessary to grow their industry.
When it comes to status, “big corner office” that epitomizes corporate ladders here is alive and well in China — I saw the biggest desks I’ve ever seen. They were complemented by jaw-dropping chairs that might better be described as “thrones.”
State-side, the big desks and chairs are slowly becoming a thing of the past, supplanted instead by flexible furniture and mobile offices that go wherever the CEO needs to go.
But this example again poses an opportunity for partnering; combining China’s clear ability to make products with our skills in designing and marketing more functional furniture could be powerful.
Indeed, several companies told me directly that they’re building their research and innovation skills to match their production capabilities. The best U.S. manufacturers are steeped in research about people, work, and how we interact. They have anthropologists, neurologist, strategists, and other experts that are standing behind the designs.
I walked away from Gangzhou with the impression that China wants to make it and sell it, and they will do what is necessary to achieve that. Again, that aggressiveness in touting their manufacturing capabilities holds great opportunities for our creative, research-driven designers.